Australia's purest water

By Dr Joanna McMillan

Joanna is a registered nutritionist and dietician with a PhD in nutritional science from the University of Sydney. She is the resident nutrition expert for Channel 9’s Today Show, contributor to magazines including Life Etc and Slimming & Health and author of numerous books including Inner Health Outer Beauty, Star Foods and the Low GI Diet.

If you’ve tried a low carb diet and managed to stick with it, I’m willing to bet you lost weight quite successfully. I’m also willing to bet you ‘came off’ the diet eventually as it was just too damn hard to stick to. The proponents of high protein diets have got something right. They have recognised that the bulk of modern carbohydrate-rich foods contribute to our growing problem with weight control. What they get wrong is that they lump all carb-rich foods together with no recognition of the good ones.

The best carbohydrates will:

  • fuel your brain, helping you to work at optimal cognitive capacity,
  • help you to perform at your best during exercise,
  • provide fibre and resistant starch to help keep you regular and your bowel healthy
  • provide you with a relatively cheap and easily stored source of food,
  • and reduce your reliance on meat and other animal products. Environmentally this also makes them a sound choice.

The problem comes if you rely on modern processed carb foods. These more often than not are rapidly digested, providing a fast sugar hit to the blood stream, which requires a huge surge of insulin to be released to deal with it. They provide little fibre to support a healthy bowel and have many of the nutrients stripped during processing so that the food may provide kilojoules, but little else.

Enter the glycaemic index or GI. This is a great tool to help you get the most from the carbs in your diet and differentiate the good from the bad. It won’t give you the full picture, but it will ensure you get slow release carbs. These trickle into the bloodstream, providing a steady source of fuel and require far less insulin to be dealt with. As you might imagine many of these are the minimally processed wholegrain type foods, although not all.

The GI is not the be-all and end-all. It was never intended for the GI to be the sole measure of the value of the food. You also need to consider the type of fat, the level of processing and any other nutritional attributes the food brings. The very best choices are both low GI and wholegrain or minimally processed. Next best are foods that may not be wholegrain but at least are low GI, followed by the high fibre but high GI choices (which include many breads and breakfast cereals). Worst of all are the low fibre, high GI choices. Give these a miss if you can.

In a Nutshell

Good low GI choices High GI foods
Stoneground, sourdough, Mountain & wholegrain breads Most other bread including white bread & wholemeal
Traditional oats & muesli Potatoes & French fries
Pasta & noodles Most white rice
Legumes (lentils & beans) Scones, pikelets, bagels & crumpets
Low GI breakfast cereals including Guardian, All Bran, Sustain & muesli varieties Most other breakfast cereals
Barley, quinoa, cracked wheat, buckwheat & rye Many cereal bars & low fat snack products
Most fruit
Low fat dairy products

Finally refer to the New Healthy Eating Food Pyramid to see how to get your portions of carb-rich foods right. The grain foods in this pyramid are not at the base — this largest space is reserved for veggies and fruit. Instead the grains should be on a level with protein-rich foods. Put the emphasis of the meal on your veggies and add a serve of a low GI carb rather than the other way around. That’s the ticket to gain all the benefits of carb-rich foods without the pitfalls.